The 2014, multi-Tony-Award-winning musical with its music-hall-sounding score and oft-rhyming-and-rapid-firing lyrics receives a fast-moving, laugh-out-loud rendering under the jocular direction of Daren A. C. Carollo. His directorial tongue never leaves his cheeks as he has conceived innumerable, over-the-top ways to tickle our innards while watching the demises of the doomed victims. That all the members of this family of mostly stuck-up and silly aristocrats are played by the same actor – an award-worthy Matt Hammons – is the icing on the cake for a show that is deliciously entertaining.
Sitting in a jail cell on the eve of his probable execution, Lord Montague (Monty) D’Ysquith Navarro, Ninth Early of Highhurst, is penning the final touches of his tell-all memoir, one he decides to entitle “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” His tale begins two years earlier and plays out before us as we see him now as a much poorer nobody in grief over the recent death of his washerwoman mother.
He is suddenly visited by a cockney spewing woman who informs him that his mother was in fact a member of the well-known, rich, and aristocratic D’Ysquith family – she being disowned and left to suffer in poverty after she had eloped for love. She also informs Monty that he is the ninth, living heir to the famed estate and all its wealth. Teressa Foss immediately sets the bar high for the evening’s over-the-top but well-executed mirth and merriment as her Miss Shingle sings “You’re a D’Ysquith,” employing exploding outbursts of sung syllables; eyes that open to the size of half-dollars; and a mouth that becomes an ever-changing pallet of laughable shapes. In other words, she is a delightful riot as she tries to convince a doubting Monty that he in only eight bodies away from being a Lord.
With a boyish air and an ever-impressive mixture of innocence and devilishness, Kevin Singer’s Monty Navarro sings with the confidence and fired-up passion of his youth, “I can see me as a man of respect, you could never detect had once been so heartlessly cast away” (“Foolish to Think”). Ready to seek revenge of his mother’s mistreatment and to secure his own, rightful destination, he joins a public tour of the Highhurst estate – an outing led by an ebullient, flittering tour guide as one of several parts wonderfully portrayed by Nick Nakashima. There Monty is confronted by a quartet of family ancestors, all hanging on the wall as portraits while singing in rich harmony and snobby airs, “A Warning to Monty” of “You don’t belong here.” That is reinforced as he also meets the squinting, ancient-of-a-man, Lord Aldalbert, who (with nose-in-air glee) prances about singing, “I Don’t Understand the Poor.”
We have also gotten our first, full glimpse of just one of many reincarnations that are to come of Matt Hammons as he one-by-one transforms into each of the eight, soon-not-to-be-living impediments to Monty’s claimed entitlement. The first to go is the family’s cleric, a tipsy Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith. The spiny-fingered, breathy-voiced Reverend eagerly gives Monty a tour of the family’s estate and tower, unknowingly also giving Monty an unexpected but not unwelcomed opportunity to ignore the drunk priest’s call for help as he slips off its windy heights. With a sudden look of a new ‘ah-ha,’ Monty sings, “What can I take from the D’Ysquith’s … except, perhaps their lives?”
In such rapid successions that we as audience are often left wondering how Matt Hammons so quickly and completely could have changed from head-to-toe his outfit, persona, sex, and age, Monty meets and finds ways to dispose each of the relatives who have no idea he is one of them. Mr. Hammons never fails to reign in portraying the quirkiest of personalities with voices that display a full range of high-society pretension and moneyed airs and graces.
His knickered, country squire, Henry D’Ysquith, joins Monty in one of the evening’s funniest numbers as the two sing “Better with a Man.” Henry’s glances, touches, and face-to-face meeting with Monty’s mid-section make it quite clear that Henry knows what he is talking about when he sings, “It’s better with a man.” That Henry also likes to play with his hives of bees gives Monty yet one more inspiration as he uses a little lavender perfume inside the dandy’s hat to provide a final stinger.
Not every D’Ysquith is that easy to wipe out, however, as Monty discovers with Lady Hyacinth, a dowager philanthropist who throws money to any crazy cause that might bolster her already bloated ego. Every suggestion Monty can somehow throw her way – lepers in India, impoverished orphans in warring Egypt, or the depths of Africa where she will hopefully be consumed as dinner – becomes not a problem for the trembling old lady who clearly has a constitution solid as a rock. Lady Hyacinth is yet another caricature triumph that Matt Hammons revels in creating for us.
As Monty continues to find the cleverest of ways to clear out any live obstacles to his own lordship – sometimes aided by luck without having to lift a finger of his own – he also is faced with a dilemma almost as daunting and dangerous: Whom to love? Two women vie for his lasting affection. The always-in-pink Sibella Hallward is Monty’s long-time love who decides to marry for money rather than what she believes will be his lifetime of poverty. Cristine Capsuto-Shulman over-sings, over-laughs, and over-acts in exactly all the right ways to capture the puffed-up personality of a now-married Sibella. Her Sibella is quite ready to pucker-up, jump in bed, and have a lifelong affair on the side with the man whom she craves (even if he is poor).
Also wanting Monty for her own is the grieving sister of one of his victims, Phoebe D’Ysquith. Melissa WolfKlain uses lilting, purposefully trembling notes to do all she can to emphasize Phoebe’s sweetness and shyness while also showing clear signs of a coy intention to secure Monty’s hand in marriage (“Inside Out”). Director Daren Carollo gets to demonstrate his full-on, comedic flair as the two women positioned in adjoining rooms literally pull on the hallway-hiding Monty in a lover’s tug-of-war as the three hilariously sing a door-slamming, split-second-timed “I’ve Decided to Marry You.”
Throughout, ensemble members also have moments to shine individually and collectively. Amanda Johnson is the Florodora girlfriend of one of the D’Ysquith heirs as she sings with comedic, operatic flair while she and Asquith, Jr. (once again Matt Hammons) ice skate with ridiculous lack of poise to their joint demise. Lee Ann Payne elicits much well-deserved, audience laughter as the much-aged but totally feisty Lady Eugenia whose verbal arrows toward her grouchy husband are nearly as deadly (but much funnier) as the poison that he will soon devour.
Bringing two of the best voices of the evening are deep-voiced Sean Fenton and tenor-impressive Noel Anthony Escobar, each of whom take on a number of ensemble roles but get to duet in full-voice brilliance as Inspector and Judge, respectively. Along with the aforementioned Nick Nakashima and Teressa Foss, Hayley Lovgren and Nichole Helfer round out this multi-talented, big-voiced ensemble.
As implied already, much of the fun and success of the evening comes through the costume-creation genius of Rebecca Valentino, with the wigs of Lexie Lazear enabling the oft-bizarre characters of London’s early 1900, common and aristocratic folks to come to full comedic life on stage. Nancy Carlin also has played a major role as dialect coach in ensuring we hear every variety of English accent, many often exaggerated in ways to produce yet more laughter.
Staring at us above a richly paneled wall as part of Mark Mendelson’s scenic and artistic design are nine portraits of past D’Ysquiths, each with a personality worth its own story and several whose painted faces quickly spring to life in order to sing warnings to the intruding Monty. Claudio Andres Silva Restrepo’s lighting design provides the finishing touches to set up impending disasters, love trysts, and moments of Monty’s spotlighted contemplations of what and whom to do next.
An ongoing issue the night I attended was back-stage noise that too often distracted me as onstage dialogues or solos were occurring. At one point, for example, two maids waited on the other side of a sheer-curtained door, clearly in view (when they should not have been) as one also stifled unsuccessfully a nagging cough. Sometimes, even movement of props onstage were overly loud or visually deflecting as they overlapped with spoken or sung lines.
Adding to the difficulty of clear understanding of all dialogue from the non-miked actors is a musical score that often continues to be played during the spoken sections. As excellent as musicians Daniel Thomas (piano), Dana Bauer (woodwinds), and Ken Brill (keyboard) are, their beautifully performed music sometimes is not in correct balance with the actors on stage (both for spoken and solo-sung portions).
But for these overall minor and hopefully correctable annoyances, 42nd Street Moon has once again proven fully capable of taking a former, big-staged musical and re-inventing its own, thoroughly entertaining and highly creative version on the intimate, Gateway Theatre stage. Kudos especially goes to Director Carollo and to the many faces, voices, and shenanigans of Matt Hammons as the living and dying members of the D’Ysquith Family.
Rating: 4 E
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder continues through March 15, 2020 in production by 42nd Street Moon at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at http://www.42ndstmoon.org or by calling the box office at 415-255-8207.
Photos by Ben Krantz Studio